In my last post regarding advocacy in the game industry I spent a significant time discussing Quality of Life (QoL) – something that has been the bane of this industry for decades.
A major focus of my thoughts on the various QoL problems we face – e.g. crunch (compensated or otherwise) – was the importance for large studios; publishers; and, especially, our trade orgs/professional associations to step up and tackle this issue head-on.
There are many developers who would love to speak up on this issue but don’t for fear of reprisals – not promoted, fired, blacklisted by other employers, etc. If we, as developers, had the backing and support of the heavyweights of the industry it dramatically reduces our risks.
Specifically, one major request I made was that:
We need to see a major org step up and present specific, concrete information on projects that will move the needle forward and then actually do the projects they promised.
I still believe there is not a lot that most individual developers can ‘safely’ do on their own to advocate for a better quality of life. However, it was not fair of me to call the big orgs out without providing ideas they could use to help – that’s akin to only bringing problems, but not potential solutions, to your boss.
In this post I’d like to provide examples of projects that could move the needle forward once implemented. I’ll also try to give some “concrete information”, where possible, so I’m not merely adding to the fluff of the ‘empty statements’ many make when talking about this issue.
Just as importantly, I’ll also give examples of items that I feel are not really “projects that will move the needle forward”. It’s easy to get swept up on projects that seem like easy-to-accomplish ‘low-hanging fruit’.
Unfortunately, those items often result in only a temporary feeling of progress, a good PR soundbite, but no real tangible effect on the issue at hand.
Caveat: I obviously can’t promise the below ideas will have positive results, but I feel it is better than not providing anything to those who genuinely want to make a difference. At the very least, I hope this may help the major companies/trade bodies spur discussion and movement on an issue that has vexed the industry for decades.
Examples Of Projects That Could Move The Needle Forward
Improving Employment Contracts
One thing that can help both developers and companies alike is improving employment contracts that provide clear guidelines and policies the company will follow. A great contract helps potential and current employees understand what the company expects of, and how it supports, its employees – assuming management enforces said policies, of course.
Although creating a single employment contract that could be used worldwide is not feasible, there are some standard pieces to most employment contracts that are critical to address:
- Non-Competes – Partial or complete removal of non-competes (more on that below)
- PTO / Family Leave / Sick Days – This covers the amount of paid time off employees have; medical, family, and bereavement leave; and guidelines on sick time – including encouraging employees who are ill to stay home and not spread ‘the bug’ throughout the team.
- Non-Solicitation – Creation and enforcement (or non-enforcement, where applicable) of non-solicitation policies
- Discrimination – Providing equal opportunity for all employees and a no tolerance policy on any forms of discrimination including covering hiring, compensation, benefits, project/task assignments, career progression, and communication practices
- Game Credits – A standard policy that is equitable, fair, and applied uniformly at all times
- IP Ownership – This includes both the company’s rules on an employee’s ability to create and own any work done in their own time and the use of company IP in portfolios, websites, interviews, talks, etc.
- Compensation – This includes structured, uniform guidelines for base salary, bonuses/royalties, overtime, promotions, pay grades, etc.
- Social Media / Communication – With the continued, increasing, and important access to social media and global communication this includes the restrictions, if any, around use of social media, blogs, interviews, etc. as well as their rights to speak about their projects, the company, the game industry in general, advocacy issues, and any other items they want to publicly communicate on
- Conflict Resolution / No Retaliation – In case there are problems, in general, or with the enforcement of the contract employees should have a complete understanding of and process to deal with all workplace issues
Ideas For Potential Employment Contract Projects
Online And In-Person Training On Employment Contracts
Provide developers a breakdown of the standard items that go into an employment contract. Employees would receive explanations of the various clauses as well as warning signs to look out for before employees sign anything. In addition, the training could include advice on the basics of negotiating employment contracts and where to go to find out about their rights as an employee in their country, province, etc.
Employment Contract Reviews – Developer Side
An evaluation tool could be provided to provide to developers – available outside of the above training – as part of a series of related resources. This would let candidates have a way to rank their potential employer based on items found in that company’s employment contract.
The IGDA actually started a project like this1 in 2013, and 20122, as a successor to a previous project (more on that below), but the Fair Employment Initiative was eventually abandoned3. However, this is something that another organization could easily resurrect and see through to completion. Once localized this could be of an immediate use to job seekers in an industry where layoffs and job turnover are unfortunately all too common.
Employment Contract Quality of Life Certification (ECQC)
A much larger initiative originally started by the IGDA ten years ago was the ECQC, which was designed to “develop a comprehensive set of core elements that reflect best employment practices” and then studios would be able to incorporate those practices and provisions into their contracts and submit them to the IGDA for certification. You can read more about the goals, and see it’s evolution over the years before it was canceled, via the captures of the original Wiki page on the Internet Archive4.
This predecessor to the aforementioned Fair Employment Initiative is definitely a project a trade org or legal collective would have to take on, but the merits and purpose behind the ECQC were sound. They also partner well with other QoL-based initiatives as it would help studios improve their business practices and help candidates ensure they were ‘getting a fair deal’.
Note: Because of the larger scope that was originally envisioned, this project had the extra benefits of not just helping develop great employment contracts but best practices including items directly related to many of the clauses I mentioned above and could greatly help make progress in multiple areas affecting QoL in the industry.
Disclaimer: I was a part of the team working on this project as a member of the now defunct Quality of Life committee up through its transition from the committee to a special task force.
Industry Wide Alliances
The ESA/EMA, with the backing of its members and related orgs, took the fight to protect video games under free speech laws all the way to the supreme court. Intel is working to unite the tech community to Hack Harassment right alongside its diversity initiatives. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) works to create a better, more sustainable electronic industry with over 100 companies now signed on as members.
No matter the cause and no matter the approach, it’s clear there is strength in numbers. It is why I said in my previous post that this issue requires the larger orgs and companies to get involved. If they could start banding together to improve things it would trickle out to all companies and allow greater freedom for developers to join in the work to make things better industry-wide.
Ideas On How To Use This Approach For Quality Of Life Issues
A Pledge Against Non-Compete Agreements
It’s time to see an end to the egregious non-competes running rampant throughout the industry. [I’m looking at you [redacted], with your ‘you can’t work for another game company in this country for the next year’ clause.]
Even if you ignore how unstable the industry is, the very notion of non-competes is a bad practice for creative industries and in business in general.
If your non-compete prohibits employees from working on their own projects in their spare time you are stifling their ability to learn new things, flex their creative muscles, and get themselves inspired and better able to help you create great products.
If your non-compete is designed to stop employees from going to another game company what you’re really saying is you don’t think you treat your employees well enough for them to want to stay on their own.
Either way you’re telling employees that you don’t trust them to do their job and that has to stop. It’s time for a large group of companies to come together and publicly commit to doing away with this unnecessary practice and start a trend that will hopefully spread across the industry.
Sustainable Work/Life Practices
The industry should take a cue from groups like the EICC and realize that coming together to create sustainable, responsible game development will benefit us all. The propensity to agree to bad contracts, unrealistic budgets, or impossible to stick to schedules are huge factors that lead to layoffs and instability.
Having constant turnover amid budget pressures may lead management to think it’s a great opportunity to just keep cycling in younger, cheaper talent but the truth is that’s often a very costly mistake. The cost to constantly find, hire, and onboard new employees is tremendous. The time and money lost when all the veterans, who can give better estimates or prevent ‘common’ mistakes, are gone only perpetuates the problem.
This industry often seems reticent to share knowledge and best practices, but the EICC has proved the worth of combining forces to make a better industry.
Building Better Companies
I feel the various trade bodies could make a real impact in this area, specifically. Through their own efforts and by collaborating with experts they can help companies implement sound business practices, become more sustainable, and create happier and more engaged employees.
Creating successful games is not an easy thing to do, nor is creating successful teams and companies. Then there is the sometimes perceived, sometimes real perception that the “suits” don’t understand what it takes to make a game and the “creatives” don’t understand what it takes to run a business.
This is where having a large “neutral” organization, or coalition of organizations, comes in handy. A third party organization whose mission is to help strengthen the industry may be in a better position to gather the folks who lead the studios, of all types and sizes, and publishers critical to these efforts.
This can start the necessary conversations, get the ‘buy-in’ for industry initiatives, and hone in on the resources that need to be provided to continue making a difference. Here are some of the many formats that could happen in:
- Conference Calls – Either as a recurring event or to discuss particular topics or initiatives
- At-Conference Gatherings – Picture ‘Business Breakfasts’ or meetings at major conferences
- Special Summits – Invite industry leaders to come to half, full or multi-day events designed to educate, train, discuss, and create action items and working groups. Then future summits could be used to report back on what’s been done, what’s working, and iterate on items for the future – just like we do with games.
- Industry Think Tanks – Create a group of studio heads, HR folks, and business leaders who can work to curate success stories and create best practices that can be deployed industry wide.
Providing (Real) Resources
It’s very easy for orgs to say they are going to provide or already have resources available that never get provided or aren’t really resources. I’ll do a mini-rant on that below in the “items that aren’t projects” section. For now, I’ll list out below suggestions for resources – the kind that beneficiaries can actively engage with – that I feel could be useful for individual developers and companies.
Free or discounted access for studios, especially small studios, to
- Project management training – as many articles note bad project management often leads to crunch, burnout, poor products, and layoffs
- HR training – especially best practices on how to successfully (and legally!) hire, onboard, train, manage, retain, and fire employees
- Third-party HR management companies – who can assist those without HR experience or the ability to have a full time HR person in those areas
- Benefit providers – who can assist management with securing, providing, and managing employee benefits like life and disability insurance, retirement plans, wellness programs, and other programs tailored to that studio or locale
- Conflict resolution training – problems in the workplace are inevitable regardless of how great a company, or industry is, and it’s how you handle it that makes the difference; helping managers create proper conflict resolution processes, prevent retaliatory actions, and foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking to their superiors will go a long way here
- Legal assistance – to avoid bad contracts with publishers and platforms, create non-horrible employment contracts and work for hire agreements, immigration, drafting equity/profit sharing plans, business formation, etc.
- Accounting Services – including training in reading and understanding accounting statements, payroll and bookkeeping services, and assistance with tax filings
Although some of the above, like accounting services, may not immediately conjure up a correlation to improving Quality of Life there’s a method to the madness, as they say. Management can use those services to offload work they don’t like or feel comfortable doing – e.g. I haven’t met many small studio heads who love to spend their days dealing with payroll or figuring out VAT taxes!
Working with the above experts offers management a greater peace of mind that those operational areas are being handled more efficiently and correctly, with less stress and oversight on their part. This, in turn, grants them more time and emotional/mental energy to foster a company culture and development process that creates a sustainable company with happier, more engaged employees.
Online employee survey tool
These tools would allow management to setup and survey their workers ‘anonymously’ on how they are doing as a company and retain the results in a system to track their progress. This could also come with guidance/tips on how to evaluate the data and make changes to improve their work environment/culture with the option of bringing in experts who can directly help them dig deeper into the data and implement changes
Bonus Points: If the provider of the tool creates a system, where the data is shared in aggregate among all studios who participate to help everyone learn where they rank, what is working, what is not working, and help the org provide more specific resources for ‘trouble areas’. This could be similar to how some publications will only let you see sales numbers, general salary info by position, etc. if you are subscribed to that service.
Free or discounted access for individual developers and aspiring developers to
- Legal assistance – to help review, negotiate, or handle NDAs, employment contracts, work for hire contracts, termination agreements, legal action surrounding unpaid compensation, harassment, discrimination, retaliation or unfair termination claims, etc.
- Job Searching Training/Tools/Services – giving job seekers access to verified and trustworthy resume writers, recruiters, website designers, etc.; tools and trainings on how to handle interviews, job offer negotiations, and conflicts in the workplace; and career planning (see below disclaimer)
- Financial Services – with so many developers ‘going indie’ or working as a freelancer providing guidance on how to stay financially sound and complete all the proper documents and file taxes is critical. In addition, long-term financial planning for all developers can help ensure they are better able to weather the storms and, hopefully, retire with some stability
- Professional Development – provide pathways to constantly curated and updated trainings, news, and tools developers need to grow and stay relevant in an industry that evolves rapidly in manners that are accessible and globally available
- Other Support Services – coaching, mental health care, experts who can help explore internal and external options, mediation, or any other number of potential avenues; offering guidance, support, and individual assistance to game devs who find themselves in the middle of sustained crunch, hostile work environments, and other poor working conditions is a critical piece of the puzzle. Of all of the above points, this resource area is one of the hardest, but potentially most important, pieces to implement to support developers.
I really wish some organization had this in place already but I couldn’t find a single trade body already doing this. If you know of someone doing something like this please drop a note in the comments below so I can spread the word!
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, a comprehensive, accessible, and globally available set of resources like those I listed for individual developers doesn’t exist anywhere. However, the services Ukie provides for their region, are a great start and they should be commended for that.
Disclaimer: While I was a part of the IGDA Board5 we created a Leadership and Education committee in 2014 at our annual offsite. One of the group’s goals was to create a roadmap for developers, by discipline, to take them from what I would phrase as ‘aspiring to retiring’. I know this project was sidelined while they focused on creating the Leadership Summit, but since then I haven’t seen any updates on the project. That being said, the last board meeting minutes6 posted publicly are from almost a year ago7 so there may be work in progress that has not been relayed to the membership.
Conducting Comprehensive Studies
Studies, like the ones used in books like First, Break All The Rules have become famous for their ability to help companies and managers make a difference. The Gallup study was massive, looked at specific factors, and created direct methods for evaluation and concrete actions managers and leadership could take to support their employees.
It would be great if the trade orgs, academics, researchers, and companies worldwide created/participated in large-scale studies. This would be a great way to explore in more detail QoL items instead of just saying “game developers say X is still bad” and “50% of respondents reported working an average of Y hours per week”.
Instead, this study could help show how the profitability, sustainability, turnover, employee engagement, and other factors differ between companies. The studies could compare in-depthly specific situations that make up quality of life areas – e.g. compensated vs uncompensated crunch, power differentials, cultural influences, demographic makeups of teams and between managers and subordinates, company policies, availability of wellness programs, etc.
Once that data is gathered they can show how that relates to the different types of companies and what composes the critical elements for success. It is this type of research that creates true, actionable information with concrete information to use in future projects.
Calling Out Companies – For Good And For Bad
One of the hard parts of being a developer is trying to get a handle on what it’s going to be like to work for a particular developer. Things like: Do they pay people fairly? Is there room for advancement? Are they honest during interviews about the amount of hours you’re expected to work?
We all have our informal networks that help us out a bit, but it’s not enough and too many developers get stuck in jobs with hostile and non-‘have a life’ environments. It’s time for the professional associations around the world to highlight the companies who have great work cultures, call out the companies with poor working conditions, and provide developers with a way to help aid in that process.
Partner With Companies Like Glassdoor
I mentioned this in my last post, but I’ll reiterate again that by partnering with companies like Glassdoor and getting the word out to developers about using that service – both in submitting and reading reviews – this can go a long way to helping developers find the good companies and avoid the bad ones.
Realistically creating a Glassdoor-like service is also not very feasible for the average professional association/advocacy org. By finding the regional equivalents of Glassdoor around the world and working with them you can jumpstart the process and provide a better, stable resource much faster.
Recognize The Good Eggs
Shining a light on companies that provide a great quality of life for their employees has numerous benefits. Chiefly among them are:
- Great marketing and draws for the company when recruiting employees, contractors, and third-party vendors
- Helping guide developers to great potential employers as well as providing examples on things to look for in other employers who haven’t yet been highlighted but are doing good work
- Fostering a sense of healthy competition as other studios work to follow suit and create environments that will also help lure in quality talent
There are already mainstream ways this happens for companies in general including Fast Company’s highlights of the best places to work, Glassdoor’s Best Places To Work awards, and CareerBliss’s Happiest Companies In America list. Sometimes a game company does get recognized, as Riot Games did in 2015 when it was ranked number 13 in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list, but there’s nothing really game specific.
The IGDA did hand out awards to two companies – Intel and Riot – for their efforts to make a positive impact on the industry at their private volunteer luncheon during last year’s GDC.
I look forward to seeing who receives the honors at this year’s GDC, but also hope this gets highlighted more publicly as well. (I tried finding something to share with you all, but at the time of this writing I couldn’t find anything on the IGDA site to link to for information on these awards.)
IGDA 20: There was an initiative the IGDA started back in July of 20118 called “IGDA 20” whose goal was to help create a game dev specific set of awards similar to the above mentioned best places to work lists. At one point, it was going to take a two-pronged approach9 utilizing the also defunct HR SIG, but by October 2011 it was, unfortunately, deprioritized10 and lay dormant.
It was brought back up for consideration in the years to follow including the addition of more detailed ideas for implementation. It went so far as to have volunteers talk with journalists who might serve as the independent ‘investigator’ and help report on those companies and the awards.
As recent as GDC 2015 past board members were still trying to make it happen, but alas it has gone nowhere. This idea is definitely something I think another org should look at taking on. I’d be happy to share more details on this idea with whoever wants to pick up the ball and run with it as well.
Call Out The Bad Apples (But Acknowledge Improvement)
In a time where the IGDA’s Developer Satisfaction Survey is going to report that 68 percent of respondents cited poor working conditions as a factor influencing society’s negative view of the game industry silence is NOT an option. Enough is enough.
There has to be some developer advocate org, somewhere in this world, with the guts to start publicly calling out the companies making this industry look bad!
We need an organization who is not afraid to stand up to companies and call them out when their poor working conditions are uncovered.
We need a professional association willing to risk losing financial sponsors or support for initiatives in favor of creating a better world for their members.
We need an org who isn’t as worried about appearing ‘too negative’ as they are about whether they are doing enough to advocate for developers and the industry as a whole.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, any company that doesn’t want to support an organization who advocates for game developers and the game industry probably isn’t a company you should associate yourself with anyway. Try taking it as a sign that they don’t agree with you that their employees should be treated well and have a great quality of life.
Take the risks, help developers, do your job.
Remember: You can draw attention to companies making mistakes and still be a positive force for the industry. It is possible to take a firm stance against a company’s practices11 and use it as a chance to educate both the company privately and the industry publicly on the ill effects of things like uncompensated, sustained crunch.
It is also possible to acknowledge those companies who make changes for the better, as Erin Hoffman did in her GDC 2013 talk The Right Side of the Ocean: EA_Spouse Then and Now. During the Q&A portion of her talk, she applauded EA for the “massive reformation” they’ve made surrounding QoL and how she felt they don’t get enough credit for it.
So please, someone, step up and make this happen!
Okay so I’ve spent a LOT of time talking about the many possible ideas orgs can take on and hopefully gave folks enough to work from in order to get them started on ‘moving the needle forward’. As I promised at the start of this post I’d like to take a (hopefully briefer) moment to also talk about the usual ‘projects’ and promises that aren’t usually helpful.
Examples Of Projects That Are More Talk And Less Walk
Everything has its place in the world of advocacy. I want to make it clear that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with doing any of the below in a general sense.
However, for the purposes of this post they are items that I don’t feel qualify as projects that directly move the needle forward. They may provide support – e.g. data and educational materials – or get the word out about progress (or lack thereof), but aren’t what I’m looking for when it comes to taking ‘real’ action.
Press Releases, Op-Eds, And Interviews
Talk is cheap, and so are press releases, op-eds, and the like. When companies and advocacy groups put out press releases or make lofty promises during interviews about how things need to change but don’t actually make the change happen it’s worthless.
In fact, it often does the opposite because it lends credence to the idea that the issue is not ‘fixable’ or worth working on, or that the org is just saying stuff to get the good soundbite.
From now on let’s call on the industry’s leaders to only use these channels to announce work that is actually in progress, highlight details of specific accomplishments, or to support some of the above projects, e.g. to call out the good eggs and bad apples.
If a company does make promises to create resources, take action, etc. then developers and press need to hold them accountable when it doesn’t happen. Otherwise they become emboldened to continue to make ‘feel good’ statements but never do anything afterwards.
Surveys, Versus Studies
Currently, the game industry tends to do surveys – versus studies – that provide data on basic demographics and general industry trends. Surveys are great for data gathering, but data that doesn’t result in actionable items doesn’t help at all.
Even if you ignore the problems most surveys face in not being truly representative of this global industry, as the author of the Giant Bomb post said:
These facts do not change. They are there, year after year. We shake our heads. We tsk and say, “what a shame” and then forget. And then the next article comes out, with the same figures, a percentage change here and there. We reboot, reset our disappointment at the state of things, rekindle it, and then get lost in the next listicle or big title.
So, while surveys are great for creating benchmarks – e.g. 50% said X was a problem in 2014, then 45% in 2015 – that’s not taking direct action. When the surveys have been showing QoL is an issue for developers since 200412 it’s clear that these statistics tools are not translating into actual changes. These numbers are not going to spur companies into making changes.
So to all the trade bodies, professional societies, and even the press I encourage you to continue doing your surveys, but:
Do not try to claim that your surveys are great examples of projects you are doing that create tangible results on their own and directly make a difference.
There’s usually at least one session at each major conference that talks about how QoL is a problem in the industry. Sometimes it’s mostly to rattle off the latest data, sometimes it is there to try to convince companies what they can do to make a difference. Unfortunately, those sessions are often attended by individuals who have no real power to make change at their companies, regardless of how much they’d want to do so.
This is why I said in the previous section that the gatherings, summits, and conferences that are held need to be directly targeted to and attended by those in charge. This is critical to success (more on that below).
Everyone knows QoL is a problem. We also know that common practices like sustained overtime don’t work – in reality, studies have shown that the as the period of time increases where employees have to work long hours the amount of hours where work is produced actually decreases, that costlier mistakes are made, and employee turnover rates rise. For whatever reason, however, this hasn’t stopped companies from continuing to run their businesses, and employees, to the ground.
So, what we don’t need is a webpage that links to a bunch of articles, white papers, and industrial psychology studies trying to convince studio management that what they are doing is bad for business. This hasn’t changed the minds of the folks running those studios and it certainly doesn’t help the developer who is stuck in their 20th week of crunch.
These types of resources have already been curated and available for over a decade now and the the surveys show not a lot has changed regardless of the data available. Don’t stop adding more links and papers to the growing pile of ‘proof’ that shows what works and what doesn’t, but, I’d encourage you to consider directing your focus from these types of ‘resources’ to the ones I suggested above.
The key to all of this is that the call and work to see change has to come from the big orgs and companies and the subsequent efforts to enact that change rely upon gaining commitments from the top people at each studio.
It is only when the highest levels of management lead the charge will things start to change for the better. Once their employees start to see management putting actions to their words will they start to believe that this wasn’t just more empty promises to try and boost morale.
It is only then that individual developers will start to feel more comfortable speaking up and helping their companies, and this industry, move the needle forward.
To any large companies, trade bodies, or professional associations who want to hear more about any of the above I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com and thank you for interest in helping make a difference for game developers and the entire industry!
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- Sheri Rubin joined the IGDA in 1999 which inspired her to become the advocate and community builder for the global video game industry that she is today.